If Ukrainian Refugees Get Safe Passage Through Europe, Why Not Others?

It's free Eurostar and Wizz Air tickets for some refugees, tiny dinghies for others.
Are all refugees really welcome?
Kiran Ridley via Getty Images
Are all refugees really welcome?

The Ukraine and Russia conflict has rightly awoken compassionate responses from around the world.

People are donating where they can, offering free lifts, rooms and food at Ukrainian borders, and other simple acts of kindness.

Several countries across Europe have extended asylum to those fleeing the violence. The conflict has even led the UK government – with its very stringent border policies – to relax its asylum rules.

Prime minister Boris Johnson has said that around 200,000 Ukrainians can come to the UK. Under the scheme, Ukrainians with family members in the UK can apply to stay in the UK for up to three years (although the government has been criticised for processing only 50 applications so far).

Now some companies are stepping in with rescue efforts, too. Recently, rail network Eurostar revealed it is offering free train tickets to refugees travelling across France, the Netherlands, and the UK.

Ukrainian passport holders with a valid visa can request a ticket from Eurostar staff at Amsterdam Central, Brussels-Midi, Lille Europe or Paris Nord stations.

It’s not the only travel operator offering free passage. Wizz Air announced that it will be giving up 100,000 flight tickets free of charge to Ukrainians who have made the journey to border countries.

Those arriving in Hungary, Romania, Slovakia and Poland will be able to fly to their destination of choice. There are also special rescue fares of €29.99 (£25) for short haul flights and $59.99 (£45) on longer ones available.

These measures, while certainly welcome, beg the question: where were these offers of safe passage for refugees from other conflict-ridden countries?

The stark difference in the response to what’s happening in Ukraine in comparison to other wars is hard to ignore.

For many migrants fleeing hardship in their respective homes, long, perilous journeys – often to catastrophic result – remain their only option.

From January to September 2021, it’s believed that 1,369 migrants died while crossing the Mediterranean, while in 2020, deaths surpassed 1,400, according to estimates (the accurate number of deaths recorded in the Mediterranean is hard to ascertain as the bodies of many who drowned are never found.

The Mediterranean is the deadliest migration route; over the last couple of years, it’s seen the largest number of migrant casualties and missing people.

And people aren’t just dying on dinghies. Let’s not forget the Essex lorry deaths in which 39 Vietnamese migrants perished while being smuggled into the UK.

All these people were failed by states and governments who failed to offer them safe passage, which should be an equal right to all those escaping persecution, the poverty of war, and other hardships.

Welcoming Ukrainian refugees with open arms is a wholly positive thing, but there have been other misguided attempts at goodwill and camaraderie.

Not only have we seen public and private buildings floodlit in the blue and yellow colours of the Ukrainian flag by governments and owners with the means to change the fates of those on the actual frontline of war, we’ve seen some questionable moves by companies that mean, well, not much at all actually.

Since the Russian invasion, consumer website Compare’s the Market has pulled its Russian meerkats off the telly, while Sainsbury’s has taken its Russian Vodka and sunflower seeds off shelves, and renamed its Chicken Kiev to Kyiv.

It’s one thing when companies want to show solidarity (and respect government sanctions of Russia), but these efforts smack more of performative activism, not unlike many responses to the Black Lives Matter protests of summer 2020.

Ultimately, these moves make very little difference to Ukrainians who simply want to live safely in their country or travel safely and quickly to another one. Nor do they acknowledge the many Russians who oppose Putin’s invasion and want to live their life free of dictatorship and conflict, too.

This invasion has shown us a lot about what’s wrong in the way countries, officials and leaders operate in times of crisis. Top of all of their priorities must be people’s right to live freely, travel safely, and settle easily.